"Circus"... from the latin for "circle," a word that evokes feelings of awe, wonder, and excitement in so many. Today, a circus can be in a tent, in an arena, in a theater, on the street, at a theme park, or at events across the world, even right here in Southwest Florida. Circus acts can be hired individually to entertain in the private sector, or can be a major event in itself where many gather to watch a spectacular show.
But where did the circus, as we know it, come from?
Circus historians credit Philip Astley as the "Father of Modern Circus." In 1768, Astley retired from the miliary and opened up a horse riding school in London. There, he would also offer trick riding shows in the evenings. Astley discovered that the smallest ring a horse could run in, that was good for trick riding and not tipping the horse too much, was a 42ft diameter. This horse ring would later become the basis for all circus rings, and the standard size for most shows.
After the trick riding shows where established, a variety of acts were added to the shows to bring diversity and interst. First off were the clowns, adding comedy to the show, both on and off the horses. Then came acts such as juggling (which could also be done both on and off the horses) and tight rope walking (which could be strung between two horse barrels).
In 1859, the first trapeze routine was performed by the one and only Jules Leotard, a French acrobat who also invented the one piece suit (now called the leotard) that made it easier to move on his new apparatus. This was the beginning of the aerial acrobatics.
American circus followed a similar route to European shows. In 1793, a Britishman named John Bill Rickets opened the first US circus in Philidelphia, following Astley's show design. The same year, Philip Lailson brought some of the performers out to the street to promote the show, and the circus parade was born. In 1797, Rickes opened a show in Montreal, Canada.
In 1825, the world saw it's first circus show appear in a canvas tent, which became more commonplace by the mid 1830s. Before that, most shows were seen outdoors or in custom-built buildings. Joshuah Purdy Brown was the man who made this happen, and was also the first to display exotic animals in his shows-- a young African elephant owned by Hachaliah Bailey. This created the unique American circus experience: the circus plus the managerie, all run by businessmen. (Europe still had performer-owned and family shows.)
1871 saw museum promoter Phinias Taylor Barnum teaming up with circus entrepeneur William Cameron Coup, and the two launched what would become the most popular American circus, also later combining with Bailey circus. Coup himself came up with the concept of travelling by train, and also the 2nd and 3rd circus rings in the show to allow for more audience, also a uniquely American concept. This made the show more of a spectical, however, was exciting and apealing to many. Until it's closure in 2017, the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus was the last show to still travel by train.
After World War I, equestrian acts became more of a memory, as the circus began to evolve more into what we know today. And the creation of the renown Cirque du Soleil in 1984 has since revolutionized the circus for modern audiences by bringing shows back to a celebration of story telling, human artisty, and acrobatic skill.
As circus continues to grow, so do the possibilities!